Women, Sex, and Storytelling: The Truth Behind Tired Mainstream Narratives

An event in New York City examined the split between our authentic selves and the social rules that keep those selves at bay.

Almost a half century after Helen Gurley Brown arrived at Cosmo, 40 years after Our Bodies, Ourselves was published, two decades after Salt n’ Pepa catchily urged women to talk about sex (and my grade-school friends vacillated between snickers and pretending to be sophisticated about the lyrics), and 15 years after Sex and the City became a hit, public conversations about women and sex remain rare—particularly those that stray from hetero, male-centered visions. Taboo and silence linger around narratives about female sexuality, except when they are sandwiched into conventional story lines. You know what those lines are: sassy starlets gone bad on one hand, and on the other, concern-trolling journalists, reporting on promiscuous teenage girls or sex workers in the developing world (paging Nick Kristof). And oh, yeah, if women do speak out—even politically—on matters of sexuality or even just gender, they’re pilloried immediately. Look at what happened to Sandra Fluke and even poor Katherine Fenton, who dared ask a question about pay equity at the recent presidential debate.

Of course, forthright chatter is common among intimate friends, a phenomenon Sex and the City captured so memorably. But the surprising and fascinating thing about SATC is that instead of being a pioneer, it has largely remained an outlier. Pop culture in the ensuing years hasn’t built upon its triumphs. Nor has it rectified its failures, by expanding the bawdy, no-holds-barred conversations to include diverse voices. Hardly any popular art that deals directly with female sexuality has emerged to take its place—with the recent exception of this year’s Girls, specifically billed as a successor to its HBO big sister. It’s a good show, but it risks its promise by keeping the conversation white, privileged, and heterosexual.

The persistent cultural void explains why the few moments of Subjectified: Nine Young Women Talk About Sex I saw this week felt so fresh. Filmmaker Melissa Tapper Goldman screened the clip at an event and panel called “Women, Sex and Storytelling,” cosponsored by several New York City feminist groups. She showed us a segment in which her nine subjects, who varied in age and background, talked about masturbation and orgasm—more broadly about pleasure—with blushes, humor, giggles, confusion, and clarity. The moderator of a post-screening panel, feminist psychologist Dr. Carol Gilligan, said the common threads were: “Am I really going to say this?” and “Who doesn’t know [that women experience this]?”

The trailer offers a sense of the project’s scope:

Gilligan noted that the film clip and the subsequent panel captured a dichotomy between embarrassment and acknowledgment, frankness and shame. This dichotomy reflects the split between personal vocabularies about sex, and socially imposed ones—and the way the latter tends to step all over the former.

Whether it was women of color feeling constrained by the “politics of respectability,” the minefield of sharing stories on the Internet, the harsh silence surrounding sex workers, or the straitjacket of broad cultural stereotypes, each panelist described a conflict between nuanced, real stories and stories deemed acceptable by larger communities. The panelists included Goldman, Gilligan, Samhita Mukhopadhyay, Jamia Wilson, Jennifer Pozner, and Audacia Ray. As for those larger communities? They could be ignorant reporters, thousands of Internet commenters, or disapproving acquaintances who say, “Why did you share this?”

Pitfalls of this schism don’t include just fictional characters in pop culture being foisted into roles like slut, victim, or virgin. Even in serious, fact-based journalism, non-male sources are often posited as either victims or experts, not both. Unique is a woman empowered to describe her personal experience and also explain how it fits into a larger structure. Narratives in which sexuality doesn’t involve the opposite gender are scarce, while narratives in which sexuality and sex don’t coincide—as with sex workers—are all but erased.

“Media content is the fruit of a poison tree,” said Pozner. When women do speak up about their stories, they can be subject to the worst kind of vilification and public harassment, or claims that they are being selfish or self-involved. Thus confessional memoirs by men are labelled “searing,” those by women “oversharing.”

But these hurdles hurt men, too. A pitfall of socialized sex roles is the exclusion of male voices from storytelling. After all, if emotions and “mushy stuff” are deemed “feminized,” then men trying to conform to gender ideals are being cut off from an essential part of their own humanity. “Traumatized,” Gilligan says.

This dichotomy isn’t part of our lives from the beginning. It’s imposed on us during what Gilligan labels “initiation” into patriarchal sexual culture. For women, this initiation usually occurs in adolescence, when what we feel (whether pain or pleasure) and what we are told to feel diverge. This is when we begin to hide our authentic selves beneath a layer of conditioning. The telling of our stories, whatever they are, begins to reveal those layers as artifice and to peel them back.

The sneak peak of Subjectified struck me as the antithesis of slick Hollywood movies that routinely fail the Bechdel test, offering an unfiltered opportunity to hear women talking to each other about their personal concerns and memories. Losing their virginity, experimenting alone or with partners, the moments they’ve been scared to speak up for their own needs, or the unabashed times they did. It shouldn’t have felt radical in 2012, but these unfiltered stories always do.

For voices that are suppressed and repressed, storytelling can be revolutionary, though not without its perils. Reading fiction, listening to music, watching film and television—in short, being a culture consumer—is as important to feminist goals as  activism is. Goldman noted that listening and sharing make us more compassionate and patient and that stories can work where statistics fail, offer a common language “from the heart and gut,” and undo assumptions. But sometimes undoing those gender roles takes a little extra push. That’s why Goldman and her team are putting together viewing kits with question cards to get the conversation really going.

“Women’s stories disrupt the conversation,” Gilligan said, which is precisely why they’re so vital. After two hours, I left the event feeling that that conversation had hardly begun. We were still talking about women and sex in a mostly theoretical way, after all, with more hesitation than many of the women onscreen.

Subjectified ventures into waters that remain shockingly uncharted.